ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Classic Hollywood: Florence Henderson returns to the stage

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Florence Henderson takes her acting very seriously, but that doesn't mean she doesn't like to fool around now and then.

Case in point: Her role as a clown groupie who wakes up in bed with Bob Goldthwait's boozy clown in the 1992 cult favorite "Shakes the Clown."

"I met Adam Sandler and he said, 'You probably don't remember me, but I was in 'Shakes the Clown.' "

Then there was her appearance at the 1993 MTV Movie Awards, in which she put her own take on several of the nominated films that year including portraying Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men."

"Some lady came up to me after that and said, 'I loved that so much. You were much better than Jack Nicholson.' "

"That is my personality," says the singer-actress who is known around the world as perfect mom Carol Brady on the 1969-74 ABC sitcom " The Brady Bunch." "I am funny."

Both the serious and funny sides of Henderson are currently on display at the Geffen Playhouse, where she appears through Sunday in Nora and Delia Ephron's play "Love, Loss, and What I Wore." It's a collection of stories based on the bestselling book by Ilene Beckerman that uses clothing and accessories to provoke memories. Besides Henderson, the cast includes another iconic TV mom, Meredith Baxter ( "Family Ties"), as well as Gina Torres, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Paula Christensen.

One of her "Brady Bunch" children, Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady, recently came to see his "mom" in the play. "He loved it," she says, over a turkey burger lunch at a Marina del Rey yacht club. "He especially loved the interaction between us. We have to read the words [of the play], but we can comment and we can react to the audience. The energy between the five ladies is so interesting and fun."

Born in Dale, Ind., Henderson was the youngest of 10 children of a homemaker and a tobacco sharecropper. She jokes that she came out of the womb singing; by the age of 2, she knew 50 songs by heart.

"I don't remember ever not singing," she says. "My mother loved music and she taught me songs, country music, spirituals. I would sing for people and pass the hat when I was 4."

At a very young age, Henderson would accompany an older brother and sister to Catholic school during the day. "The nuns found out I could sing, so they taught me more songs," she recalls. "When I was 8 years old, they put me in a big choir and I was singing four-part Latin Masses."

Barely 17, she ended up at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. "I was sponsored," she says. "My best friend in high school was as wealthy as I was poor. I had the lead in the high school operetta. I shared my dreams with my best friend — she is still my best friend — and she talked to her family and said, 'She wants so badly to go to New York and maybe we can help her.' "

Henderson left the school after her first year because she got a job in the chorus of the Broadway musical "Wish You Were Here," directed by Josh Logan. She segued from the chorus to the lead role in the final national touring company of Rodgers and Hammerstein's " Oklahoma!"

Logan remembered her from "Wish You Were Here" and had her audition for the lead role in the 1954 musical "Fanny" with Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak. "I said to Mr. Logan, 'I am going home to visit my family and so whatever you decide....' The minute I got back to Indiana I got a telegram, 'Congratulations Fanny, come home.' "

She appeared in other Broadway musicals, including Noel Coward's final musical effort, 1963's "The Girl Who Came to Supper." From 1959-60, she was the "Today Girl" on the "Today" show," doing weather and light news stories. Later she was the first female guest host of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in the 1970s.

She did one movie musical, 1970's "Song of Norway," which she made just before getting cast as Carol Brady. Last year, she was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution's first permanent entertainment history exhibit as a "Legendary Lady of Stage and Screen."

The mother of four grown children and the grandmother of five, Henderson is still very close to her "Brady Bunch" children

"When I was in New York, I spent time with Eve Plumb [who played Jan]. I am always in touch with Susan Olsen [Cindy], the youngest, and Chris Knight [Peter]."

Henderson is surprised that the sitcom has not only endured over the decades but has had such international success. "I get so much mail from Russia, Poland and from all parts of the world, it's astounding."

For more information on "Love, Loss, and What I Wore," go to http://www.geffenplayhouse.com.

susan.king@latimes.com

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